Atheist spirituality: does it exist?
I’ve always heard people say, “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.” For years I puzzled over what this meant. In some instances, “spirituality” seemed full of woo–and I associated it with Reiki, homeopathy, Tarot readings, and people who take yoga way too seriously. In other cases, the people who claimed to be spiritual seemed perfectly reasonable. But I just never understood what spirituality was, if it did not involve a god, a church, or a religion. (Things I do not believe in, if that was not clear.) Due to a confusing and often painful series of events in my life, I recently started attending a Unitarian Universalist church–and I suddenly get it. Now I can begin to see where the divide lies. There is a confusion about the word itself. Spirituality need not imply the supernatural, though it often does.
Inherent to the word spirituality is the word spirit. A spirit can be something that lives on after a physical body has decayed–they manifest as ghosts, Ouija board movers, chills in the air, blurry lights, and other such unimpressive things. All evidence points to the scientific conclusion that spirits do not exist. As skeptics, we’d have to agree that this definition of the word spirit is not anything we believe in.
The word spirit is also often synonymous with the word soul. That also implies the supernatural. But others have defined it apart from the properties of immortality and immateriality to mean “the essence of a person.” What can an essence be, if not some dualistic super-property of your normal self? The mind? Most realists and skeptics would equate the mind to the brain, which is physical, dies, and should hold no special significance to a person. So what else could it be?
Massimo Pigliucci can provide a bit of direction, as he discussed this same topic on his blog. He gives a few different definitions of a spiritual person, including this one:
Which brings me to the third interpretation of the word spiritual: someone who takes care of cultivating and reflecting on his ethics, of behaving justly and compassionately toward his fellow human beings, and of nurturing his aesthetic sense through arts and letters. Okay, by that definition, I am spiritual but not religious. But so is any human being who is not a psychopath.
I’d say he was exaggerating slightly. Perhaps I am more cynical than he, but it seems to me that many people like to believe they are good, ethical people–but do not “take care” to cultivate and reflect upon their ethical decisions. They still aren’t psychopaths.
I do think he has hit upon something, though–the idea that being spiritual requires a consistent reflection upon one’s true values, and attempts to apply these to everyday life in order to feel fulfilled and give meaning to one’s life. People agree that compassion is good, but not everyone would find it rewarding to sacrifice their whole lives to community service, and not everyone wants to form nonprofit organizations and attend protests all day. Spirituality is highly individual. And some people are inclined towards a consistent and structured practice, and some people are not. I do not believe that everyone is spiritual if they are simply a non-psychopathic human being, nor that everyone should be, or ought to try.
I think this is where the definition of spirit or soul as “the essence of a person” comes into play. To be spiritual is to explore how our individual selves find fulfillment, whether it is through compassionate service, aesthetic engagement, social activism, mindful meditation, or, yes, through some commune with a god. Sometimes simply learning about the universe and thinking about how we are all star stuff gives us meaning, too.
Although spirituality can be at odds with atheism, it is not fundamentally at odds with it. You can almost certainly practice some form of structured meditation on your values and believe in evolution, science, and reality at the same time. There needs to be a better word for spirituality that is firmly reality-based, and has nothing to do with spirits at all.
Featured image: A nebula in the Orion constellation, NASA.